While diamonds may be a girl's best friend, pearls have a timeless elegance that is unmatched. Their understated beauty makes them the ultimate bridal accessory. The gem of the sea can be your something old, something new, something borrowed, and even your something blue!
For my wedding day, I was lucky enough to borrow a simple, elegant strand of pearls from my mother. They were the perfect finishing touch to my wedding dress, and I still wear them all the time now.
I have been in the jewellery industry for many years and over this time I have helped countless brides choose their wedding day jewellery. I always tell them that I believe you can have fun with your wedding jewellery, but it should be classic and subtle. Whether you opt for a simple pearl pendant or an elaborate necklace set with diamonds, pearls have a beautiful luminosity that will complement your wedding dress effortlessly.
Why do People Assume That Pearls are Just for Older Women?
There is a common misconception that pearls are for older women, but this is far from the truth. Pearls have soared in popularity over the last couple of years, featuring heavily on the catwalks. Pearls have become a new signature for Gucci, and both Balenciaga and Céline reinterpreted the classic pearl in a cool way this season.
There are also many contemporary jewellery designers creating modern and edgy pearl jewellery that appeals to every age.
At Burrells, we have a beautiful selection of pearls, with something to suit every taste and budget. We are also proud to be able to offer the finest quality pearls from Mikimoto, a Japanese company, whose founder, Mikimoto Kōkichi, is credited with being the originator of the cultured pearl process in 1893. Mikimoto pearls are expertly harvested, and only the very top quality (selected for their superior lustre and perfect shape) reach the market.
Natural Pearls vs Cultured Pearls
Pearls are created in two ways: the natural way (without human intervention) and the cultured way (where people farm them).
How are Natural Pearls Made?
Natural pearls form when an irritant (a piece of shell, bone, scale, or even a parasite) lodges itself into a pearl-producing mollusc such as an oyster or mussel. To protect itself, the mollusc forms a nucleus over the foreign object and coats it with layers of nacre over the next few years. The result is a beautiful pearl.
There was once a time in history when only the wealthiest and most privileged members of society could aspire to own pearls. In fact, wearing pearls was the ultimate status symbol, a bit like owning a private jet today (I wish…)
Before the process of creating cultured pearls had been invented, all pearls worn by the super-rich were natural. This involved diving to the seabed and indiscriminately opening every oyster in the hope that one would contain an elusive, precious pearl.
This intrusive process was not only very labour intensive, but had a hugely destructive effect on the oyster population, and fragile surrounding ecosystem. Only one in 10,000 oysters opened would contain a pearl, and an even smaller percentage would yield a pearl of the right size and quality for use in jewellery. Almost all of the pearls you come across today will be cultured pearls, and the oyster population of the world can breathe a collective sigh of relief!
This natural pearl necklace belonged to the Duchess of Windsor and was sold by Sotheby’s for $4.82 million in 2007.
How are Cultured Pearls Made?
The process of culturing pearls revolutionised the industry, enabling pearl farmers to produce large numbers of consistently high-quality pearls. This reduced the market value of pearls to a level that was affordable to everyone.
There are four main varieties of cultured pearl; Akoya pearls, freshwater pearls, south sea pearls and Tahitian pearls.
The process begins when the pearl farmer inserts a small bead (the nucleus, commonly a piece of mother of pearl) into a tiny slit in the shell's fleshy mantle (which covers the interior of the shell). The nucleus irritates the oyster, and he or she (certain species of oysters are hermaphrodite) will produce a substance called nacre to coat the bead. This builds up gradually, and the tiny bead becomes a pearl which gets bigger over time.
A black-lipped oyster will produce a black pearl; however, it is worth mentioning that a black pearl is not really black - when you look at it closer, it is an iridescent blue/green colour. The less expensive versions will be dyed black, and will not have the lustre and same hue as the naturally produced Tahitian black pearl.
A string of natural black pearls will be a significant purchase, as the pearls will have to be colour matched (each oyster can produce a slightly different colour according to habitat and environmental factors).
Angelina Jolie wears Mikimoto
Why are Some Pearls More Expensive Than Others?
I am often asked why some pearls are so much more expensive than others. There can be a vast difference in price, and unless you look closely, the difference is not immediately apparent.
The very finest and naturally, most expensive pearls, are known as South Sea or Akoya (cultured pearls). They are produced by an oyster, often a silver-lipped one. These oysters take between three to seven years to create a single pearl and are kept off the coast in a watery farm. They are treated with the greatest of care, and the utmost skill is needed to harvest the pearl.
Only 5% of Pearls Make the Cut
A high-quality pearl producer (such as Mikimoto) will be very exacting when selecting the very best pearls to go to market. Often only the top 5% will be chosen. The colour and shape of the pearl must meet certain standards; any irregular shape will not be used in jewellery. Pearls are also graded for their lustre, and those with the best shine and brilliance are the most desirable.
Are There More Affordable Pearls?
What about the more affordable pearls - how can they be produced at a considerably lower price and still look amazing? These more accessibly priced pearls are known as freshwater pearls, and they are produced by a different mollusc, often a freshwater mussel. They are much easier to farm and can be kept in large indoor tanks of fresh water. This means that they are not susceptible to the same environmental changes as the oysters that are kept out at sea.
In addition, these muscles produce a pearl in a much shorter time and often create several pearls at once. The result is a much more affordable pearl for the customer that still has the same classic look.
Freshwater pearls are often creamier in colour and irregular in shape. They are frequently treated to make them whiter, and sometimes coloured dyes are used to give them a more desirable colour. These processes serve to enhance the uniformity of colour and shape and do not have a detrimental effect on the durability of the pearl.
Photo credit: www.thevivaluxury.com
Can you Wear Pearl Jewellery Every day?
Pearls are an organic gem, composed of the mineral aragonite, a form of calcium carbonate, which is produced by nature. You may have heard of the Moh’s Scale (which measures the hardness of gemstones on a scale of 1 to 10). Number 1 is the softest, and number 10 is the hardest substance known to us (which is of course diamond). Pearls sit between 3.5 and 4.
With this in mind, I would not recommend that you wear pearl jewellery every day. Pearls need care and attention to keep them in excellent condition and in my opinion, they are best used in jewellery that is not susceptible to knocks and hard-wear (earrings, pendants and necklaces).
There’s something undeniably chic about pearls, and I think they make the perfect wedding day jewellery. Whether you opt for a classic pearl necklace like I did or you go more contemporary with an edgy pair of pearl earrings, this iconic gemstone will add just the right amount of glamour to your wedding look.
As Grace Kelly once said, “The pearl is the queen of gems and the gem of queens”.
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